It’s no surprise Francesca Eastwood is following in her father’s footsteps and taking on a badass, kick-ass new revenge role. The daughter of Clint Eastwood and Frances Fisher, who’s starred in the reality show Mrs. Eastwood & Company, shows off her acting chops in the SXSW film MFA. Not only is she fantastic, with an impressive range for one of her first leading roles, but she delivers a career-making female vigilante performance. As a college student who kills rapists (yes, you read that right) she elevates the anti-hero, to Dexter-levels. She’s out for reparation.
Playboy had a chance to catch up with the team behind MFA at SXSW: writer/actress Leah McKendrick (Bad Moms), Director Natalia Leite (Bare) and Eastwood. The film centers on Noelle, an innocent art student who, after accidentally killing her rapist (Peter Vack), sets out to find other women who’ve been abused on campus. Her journey turns into a quest to punish the men who’ve gotten away with their crimes – many of them frat dudes. As much a revenge thriller as an emotional drama, the film hyperbolizes a feeling many victims who’ve suffered from abuse experience: the craving for justice. When no one on campus will help her, or believe her for that matter, Noelle takes matters into her own hands.
Eastwood shines as a woman ruthless for the payback she sees fit, but grounds her performance with the vulnerability of her unexpected trauma. The truth behind the situations, even as they venture into the horror genre, make the film that much more terrifying. We chatted about constructing the vigilante character, the team’s passion to connect with other victims – telling them they’re not alone – and the importance behind taking back ones’ body. When Noelle walks away from her prey, hammer in hand, drenched in blood, she provokes the thought that, well, she got hers.
I loved the film. It feels like a new wave of feminism. You have the phases that people have projected upon feminism: the reserved feminist, the “angry,” the intellectual. This feels like something else entirely. Where are we at with feminism now and how does this film connect with our current climate?
FRANCESCA EASTWOOD: There’s less men versus women. There’s so much support from men, too.
LEAH McKENDRICK: As a man, if you’re not fighting to help support women, then you’re against them, you know what I mean?
NATALIA LEITE: It’s interesting to see, let’s all support each other! It’s not just your cause or my cause. I think there’s more room now for women to be angry and not be labelled as a bitch.
Exactly. This film isn’t advocating murder, but instead the idea of taking things into your own hands, of doing something more than just talking. I’m curious to know your backgrounds with this subject matter of sexual assault coming into the project.
McKENDRICK: I had this really scary experience when I was a new actress in Hollywood. This director kissed me and touched me. Immediately, I thought, Don’t fight or say anything to upset him because I have to get out of here safely. And afterwards this amount of shame that it was my fault because I should have known not to go into a house to have an audition. Also, not wanting to be a cliché as an actress, feeling embarrassed and not wanting my parents to know, because they were going to tell me to come home and that, “This was Hollywood.” But then this anger started to build within me – it’s just the business normalizing, taking advantage of me and my body. Also, I sort of couldn’t stop it because I was so shocked and didn’t know how to respond to that.
I do a lot of stories like this that come from a place of feeling very taken advantage of in my earlier years. And now, I have a deep understanding of my own pain, because I’ve had to explore it through my scripts. I feel very protective of not just other actresses, but other women who have been silenced in a way which I felt very silenced.
LEITE: For me, I connected a lot to the story on a personal level because I had gone to art school and I had been sexually assaulted when I was in art school. I was young, and I could put a lot of that into the story which was amazing. We want justice to be served, we’re humans. We have anger, revenge, all of these “bad thoughts” and feelings. They need a place to get that out so that we can heal and move on with our lives.
I would like to see someone who really get hers, who stands up to the system – that vigilante justice we see with Batman and Dexter and we’re really okay with it when they’re men.
Was it your intention to sort of sugarcoat the pill of such a dark subject matter by making this a genre thriller?
McKENDRICK: No, I always approach things with what do I want to play and what do I want to see out there in the world? I would like to see someone who really gets hers, who stands up to the system – that vigilante justice we see with Batman and Dexter and we’re really okay with it when they’re men.
She’s such a female Dexter.
McKENDRICK: We see that in men all the time! I love horror films. I love genre films, thrillers. I love women, women’s stories. I’m very hurt and pained by the girls on campuses across the nation and the world being screwed over by our broken system. I just wanted to make a cool film that people would enjoy, but also maybe think about.
EASTWOOD: Yeah, it falls into the horror category, but you created rich characters and the way that you, [Natalia], worked with everyone and got these great performances, from men too. I was so impressed by it.
LEITE: My goal was to make people feel really connected to the character; have moments where they’re laughing, have moments where they’re crying, and have moments where they’re gripping the edge of their seat. Take them on a rollercoaster. Someone tweeted that it’s a dark comedy like Heathers.
McKENDRICK: That was so rad. It’s such a cool comparison and I’m such a big fan of Heathers. Once we were shooting, I wasn’t thinking of it as fun, because it was a very emotional story and character. But to see it all put together and get those “Yes!” moments and cheers [at the premiere at SXSW] was very cool.
I think it would’ve been such a different film if it was a slow, indie drama. It had to be an elevated genre film. But it allows people to have all those emotions.
How did you want this Noelle to live beyond this film and be a motivation for other women?
LEITE: I would love if this film could become a cult classic and people reference this character as somebody with superhero qualities. We talked about that, too. At what point does her transformation happen? She has this special jacket. I was talking about that with the production designer. It’s inspiring women, obviously not for violence, but to stand up for their own abuse and to speak out, be brave.
EASTWOOD: My mom said something funny after she watched it. She said “Gosh, you got down, you did a lot of physical stuff!” I’ve never read a script with those type of things for a women — going through all that.
LEITE: That can be an inspiration for people, too. To be able to vocalize how you feel about something. I’m angry, the system is messed up, I’m a woman, and I’m allowed to speak up about it.
McKENDRICK: And I’m not alone. That was super important to me and Nat. The rapist is not necessarily the guy who jumps out of the bushes or the creepy guy at the party. It can be the guy that you like, it can be your friend, and all of those different people. We don’t want women to feel like their rape is any less important or violent or damaging just because it didn’t happen in a certain way that we see in movies.
The film also reminded me of Elle, because you were equally so particular about the sexual, disturbing images that you used. You didn’t shy away from the rape scene. Tell me about that decision.
LEITE: The DP, Aaron Kovalchik, and I sat for a horrible day and watched a bunch of rape scenes. We really wanted to see what was out there and there were so many ways to show it or not show it. At the end of it all, thinking about it so hard, I wanted it to be the moment of the film that feels very real and messy. When Fran and Peter got into the room, I told them, “We’re going to go into one long take, we’ll get a few little close-ups to cut into it. I want you to play it in real time.” They were like, “Uh, okay.” We talked about being okay with, like, he’s going to get violent. He’s pushing her hair on the bed and it’s super hard to watch.
EASTWOOD: It wasn’t over-choreographed. Peter is so great, a wonderful actor and a professional. He had already created his character, and I had no idea what he was going to do. I felt very strong in the Noelle that I was feeling, and having that in me. It was horrible to shoot. Afterwards, I felt that we did a good job of making a hard to watch scene.
It’s important to communicate the terror of that situation.
LEITE: If people hadn’t been really affected by the scene, then the film falls apart. They wouldn’t have been on her journey as much.
EASTWOOD: I love, too, that it didn’t start out with the frats, it was something that was subtle. It was a guy she really liked. I think that happens a lot, that shame of I wanted it or I did go to his room with him. This is a character that really likes this guy, who wants to be with him, and then that happens.
In a way, it felt more realistic. I think one of the reasons why people stay silent, is that it’s hard to differentiate that anything happened because it’s their ex-boyfriend or current boyfriend. Screening this, what have people been saying to you afterwards?
LEITE: A lot of women really connected to it super powerfully. Crying afterwards, and coming up to us and getting teary-eyed wanting to share their story. We got some men too, who were questioning…
EASTWOOD: I got a lot of great feedback from guys.
What have they said?
EASTWOOD: Great job, you guys are bad-ass. It’s not the most eloquent way to put it together, but that’s the gist of it.
There’s a moment in the interrogation room scene with Noelle and a cop, after another character has died after her sexual assault case resurfaces. The cop says something like, "Do you know why she would have taken her own life?” And Noelle looks at him just in shock. That scene summed up a lot about the lack of understanding of the emotional interior of assault victims.
EASTWOOD: It’s one of my favorite scenes that I’ve ever read. I loved it so much. It’s a theme, along with the therapist [from the college, who doesn’t acknowledge Noelle’s rape], of calling out the administration. To have this cop, that you know has been following [the character] and leading her into that [decision to take her life], there’s an anger to the system — [Noelle’s response is] because of you, you motherfucker.
Not even just because of her being sexually assaulted, but because she has been tormented and denied by the system.
EASTWOOD: And shamed and not supported or taken care of by law, or a psychologist.
That’s a woman! How do we communicate the emotional interior life of what goes on for women and victims. Not just to other people, but to institutions? Your character literally kills people because no one will do anything about it!
LEITE: [Laughing] Totally.
McKENDRICK: I go back to, “How do you translate that to a script?” I just don’t know. It’s not a super satisfying answer, but just trying to be as authentic and real to the stories that I’ve heard or read. I had no idea that there so many girls, survivors, encouraging other survivors to stay silent. Saying,”What happened to me after the rape was more traumatic than the rape itself because of the way that I was put on trial and accused and belittled. I felt so naked and so ashamed and bullied.” That just made me cry, because this world is forcing us to stay silent. That’s why I wrote that into my character, Skye, her encouraging Noelle to let it go, let the damage be done and not make this worse. I was just trying to tell these different perspectives and know that I can’t cover all of them. Just hoping to God that women who are survivors would watch it and feel represented in the film somewhere.
How has making this film inspired you, or empowered you specifically?
LEITE: It’s inspired me to be braver and speak what’s on my mind. Stand up tall, I think. Speak up about things that we want to change about our own experience. Don’t be silenced or let men speak for you. Not to get super-feminist here!
Oh, it’s happening.
EASTWOOD: There’s a lot of going through the physical pain part of it. But there’s also a sexual empowerment and awakening and sensuality.
Reclaiming your sexuality.
EASTWOOD: Finding the healing of it. Not being ashamed and taking back your body.
LEITE: Taking ownership of your body.
McKENDRICK: This film has forced me to clarify what I want to stand for in my life. I don’t mean to get so deep or so annoying! For me, I’m going to die someday, and I’d like the work that I’ve created to speak for me and the kind of person and the change I was trying to create in my lifetime. I would hope that my body of work, in any tiny, minuscule way would make the world a better place, a place that I would rather live in.
LEITE: At the graduation speech [during the last scene of the film, Noelle] says something about exposing the truth, even the dark sides of it. That’s reality and it’s important to put it out there.
EASTWOOD: Those lines encompass the whole story.